Gospel Indicatives/Gospel Imperatives

Have you ever picked up a book about a subject you were interested in and found that the author required you to learn his peculiar vocabulary, memorize his clever acronyms or acrostics, and acclimate yourself to his unique jargon in order to follow his train of thought? I seldom make it past the first chapter of such a book—it is just not worth the effort. In order to communicate well about any subject it is necessary to have a common language and understand the terminology of the debate in a uniform way. In biblical counseling circles we are experiencing several controversies in which new ways of using old terms has clouded the discussion.

The biblical counseling movement is now immersed in a troubling controversy about the nature of biblical sanctification. A view is being championed by some which teaches that understanding the Gospel, meditating and contemplating upon its riches, and teaching counselees to do the same is all that is necessary for a believer to grow and change. The Gospel, this view claims, frees us from the need to work at obeying the commands of Scripture.

This is an important discussion. A wrong view of sanctification by the counselor can have a devastating effect upon the counselee. In order to have a fruitful discussion, however, it is necessary to use our words carefully, not merely in how kind and loving we are in our discussion (for some, it is unkind to disagree or point out error), but how accurate and clear we are. To that end, I want to urge my friends in the biblical counseling movement to consider carefully how the terms “Gospel Indicatives” and “Gospel Imperatives” are being used.

The two words “indicative” and “imperative” refer to properties of verbs commonly called mood (or mode). Mood comes from a Latin word which means manner. Thus, by using these terms, we are speaking of the manner in which the verb expresses the action or state of being. A verb in the indicative mood makes a statement or asks a question—he sat, they sang, we ate. A verb in the imperative mood expresses a command or request—eat your peas, insert tab A into slot B, close the door.

The word “Gospel” is more important to understand. Language changes with usage and our English word “gospel” has become a much broader word than was used by the New Testament writers. Today, the word is often used to simply mean anything that is true. In this discussion, however, we should be careful to use the term the way the New Testament writers used the word. It is a translation of the Greek word euangelion which means simply “good news.” In three of the Gospels it is used generally to mean good news about the coming of Christ and His Kingdom. In the epistles Paul and Peter used the term in a narrower sense—the Gospel, my Gospel, our Gospel. For Paul and Peter, the gospel was the saving message of Christ. It was “the power of God unto salvation.” It was always used in a soteriological sense.

Now, it is not wrong to use the term gospel to mean countless other things or to point out that all we have and enjoy in Christ is indeed “good news.” But for the purposes of our discussion about sanctification and counseling it would be helpful if we all talked about the same thing and used the term the same way the New Testament uses it.

Our forefathers in the faith would have been baffled by our use of the terms “Gospel Indicatives” and “Gospel Imperatives.” These were not categories that ever occurred to them. It is new jargon and, as such, they do not have any kind of settled theological meaning. If we are to use the terms in their common grammatical sense when referring to “the gospel” we only confuse the discussion by freighting the terms with all the Bible teaches that is true (indicatives) and all the Bible requires of us (imperatives). “The Gospel” (as the term is used in the New Testament) has only two indicatives and but one imperative!

The Gospel is the reporting of news, good news. It consists of two facts of history—Christ died for our sins and He rose again from the dead. Once reported and received by the listener it has been communicated in its entirety. We are not told to “preach it to ourselves” over and over again once we have heard it. It is news. The only gospel indicatives are those two facts of history—Christ died for our sins and rose again from the dead.

When it comes to gospel imperatives there is only one—BELIEVE! The Gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes. All that the Bible teaches we are to do and all it commands that we are to obey are indeed imperatives but by referring to them as “gospel” imperatives we confuse sanctification with justification and do violence to the New Testament usage of the term “gospel.” For Peter, “those who do not obey the gospel” are those who do not believe (1 Peter 4:17).

Let’s have this discussion. It is a vital issue. Those who have resurrected this quietist or contemplative view of sanctification are identified by a number of labels these days—Sonship Theology, New Calvinism, Gospel Sanctification, Christian Hedonism. But regardless of the label, it must be clearly identified as outside the borders of truly Biblical counseling. We will not deal with it as we should if we use fuzzy or cloudy terminology in our discussion. Let’s be clear about what we believe and how the Scriptures teach us to help people change in a way that pleases Him.

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